Dawndra Jones, DNP, RN, NEA-BC, is vice president of Patient Care Services and chief nursing officer for UPMC Magee-Womens Hospital. She previously served as chief nursing officer at UPMC East and UPMC McKeesport. Her areas of expertise include leadership development, performance management, diversity and inclusion, and population health. She first joined UPMC more than three decades ago as a staff nurse.
You were inspired to go into nursing as a young girl when you watched your mother care for your grandmother. Could you talk about how that influenced your life’s work?
My mom was a nursing assistant for 40 years. She worked at UPMC St. Margaret prior to it becoming part of UPMC, where I was born. She had always worked in health care, so when my grandmother had a stroke, the family said, “OK, grandma goes to live with you and your kids.” And that’s what happened. My grandmother was in and out of the hospital, and we had various home care services that came into our home, too. I never thought anything of it because that was the norm for our family.
My mom was the kind of person who opened her heart to anyone and everyone. We were that house where people knew they were always welcomed.
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You started college at Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU). What was your journey to nursing school, where you graduated first in your class?
I attended VCU as a chemistry and premed major. But financially, it became too much of a hardship for my family, so at the end of freshman year I came back home to figure things out. A neighbor was the admission clerk at West Penn Hospital School of Nursing, and she encouraged me to apply there. I was accepted right away — but I still had to figure out how to pay for tuition and books.
That’s when I learned about a new group in Pittsburgh called the Nurse Recruitment Coalition. It was a collaborative effort by local hospitals to recruit diverse individuals into nursing. I met with its director, Kathy Mayle, who’s now dean of nursing and allied health at the Community College of Allegheny County. She basically said, “Dawndra, we’ve got you covered.” And they did.
Thanks to the Nurse Recruitment Coalition, I was able to attend nursing school and live in the dorms across the street. I even was given vouchers to eat in the cafeteria. They bought my books. They created individual plans for each student. They had mentorship classes on professionalism. It was such a great foundation for me. I remain grateful today for all the opportunities they gave me — and I will always look for ways to pay it forward.
What was your path in nursing? Do you regret not becoming a physician?
Not at all. Diagnosing patients and ordering tests doesn’t excite me nearly as much as the work I do as a nurse.
After graduating nursing school, I joined UPMC Shadyside. National nursing groups Our CNO, Gail Wolf was encouraging registered nurses like me to earn a bachelor’s degree as their next career step. I knew several nurses who were going to Carlow University. I did, too, earning my bachelor’s degree and then my master’s. I received my doctorate in nursing at Pitt in 2014.
On the first day of your first job, you tell the story of a patient, assuming you were a member of the dietary staff, not a nurse. How did that experience impact your outlook and resolve?
I realized I could either take it personally and be upset — or I could try to do something about it. I decided I would always be clear to my patients and their families who I am — and always provide the best care possible. And because of that care, hopefully, they will think differently about the next Black provider who comes into their hospital room.
More than 9 of every 10 nurses today are white — an astonishing lack of minority representation. Fewer still hold nursing leadership roles. What forces are at work that discourage or prevent Blacks and other minorities from pursuing a nursing career?
Pennsylvania is a very diverse state. But if you identify as Black, you’re up to six times less likely to become a nurse, depending on where you live in Pennsylvania. We work with many different community and professional organizations to determine how can we best support diverse individuals becoming nurses — to really represent the population that they represent and the population that’s in their community. Because of the support I received as a nursing student, I founded within the Pittsburgh Black Nurses in Action, the Future Nurses Academy, which supports diverse students while they’re in nursing school. I’m proud UPMC has helped fund some of its efforts.
Pittsburgh Black Nurses in Action is the local chapter of the National Black Nurses Association. We’re trying to build awareness that nursing can be a great profession by going into schools early on — even elementary schools. We’re also making sure they know what classes students need to take in high school and that they know about the financial opportunities that are available.
You’ve been part of UPMC for more than three decades, starting as a staff nurse and working your way up as a nurse leader. You’re now UPMC’s first Black chief nursing officer. How has nursing changed over the years at UPMC — and how has it responded to the growing need for greater diversity in its nursing workforce?
My first CNO position was at UPMC McKeesport in 2014. I saw what an impact good nursing and quality health care can have in an underserved community — especially when the community comes together like McKeesport did through the added involvement of its faith-based leaders.
When I think about how nursing has changed, I realize just how dramatically health care as a whole has evolved. We don’t see the same patients that once did in a hospital. Many of our services now take place in clinics and outpatient settings. That shift has diluted the number of nurses we have available for both in-home care and inpatient services at our hospitals. We also need more nurses in long-term care and in the community. The demand for qualified nurses continues to grow in every setting.
In the area of health equity, at Magee we really look at our outcomes to make sure we are providing great care and access to diverse individuals. That means looking at what we do with a different lens. Our goal isn’t just clinically competent, but culturally competent care. That means being sensitive to barriers like language as well as skin color and economic differences.
As the largest group of health care professionals, nurses are ideally positioned to have a real impact on what’s happening in health care today. That includes addressing health inequities to ensure that every individual gets the care that they need. As nurses, we need to stand up, take a position, lead health care, and not allow others to make decisions for us.
As the CNO at UPMC Magee, you’ve been a valued partner with UPMC’s Government Relations team on key legislative initiatives, including the important work of doulas with underrepresented women.
Across America, Black mothers and their babies face a much higher mortality rate than white mothers and their babies. When I came to UPMC Magee, the maternal mortality rate in Pittsburgh was far, far higher of other similar cities. I believed I had a great opportunity — and purpose —at Magee to help change that statistic.
First, I have to say that everyone at Magee, at every level, owns the fact that health care for Black mothers must get better — and that change begins with us. Our providers and our nursing team have worked together to evaluate the patient experience and take steps to ensure that diverse patients get the care that they need.
We started employing and offering doulas to individual patients. We also supported state funding for them because — as the literature supports — people who use doulas as partners along with the health care team have better outcomes. We’re working on a study now looking at making sure that Magee becomes a doula-friendly health care partner. That’s very important when it comes to developing that trusting relationship with patients.
There is so much in the media about maternal mortality and fetal mortality. Many women — especially those who identify as Black — are scared when they get to the hospital. Having a doula throughout your pregnancy creates a trusting relationship with someone who can be an advocate for you. Doulas provide a voice for that person to communicate with and make sure we’re all on the same page. They support women before, during, and after delivery. It is a critical role that delivers cost-effective and high-impact results. It makes sense to make them central to our health care team.
Headquartered in Pittsburgh, UPMC is a world-renowned health care provider and insurer. We operate 40 hospitals and 800 doctors’ offices and outpatient centers, with locations throughout Pennsylvania, Maryland, New York, West Virginia, and internationally. We employ 4,900 physicians, and we are leaders in clinical care, groundbreaking research, and treatment breakthroughs. U.S. News & World Report consistently ranks UPMC Presbyterian Shadyside as one of the nation’s best hospitals in many specialties and ranks UPMC Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh on its Honor Roll of America’s Best Children’s Hospitals. We are dedicated to providing Life Changing Medicine to our communities.